Pubs are being closed on the basis of a lie

Ministers are turning a blind eye to the fact that their planning system is encouraging the closure of profitable, valued pubs and eroding our pub heritage.

One thing many politicians seem to like to do is to be pictured with a pint of British beer in a British pub.  They hope it suggests that they are ‘ordinary’ and mix with well, ordinary people who go to the pub. If the politician is a Government Minister – and David Cameron has been pictured in said pose in a pub or two – then it also is designed to say “We support the Great British Pub”.

Our current Government in particular claims to be pro-pub, yet despite a number of reasonably positive initiatives, this, like some of the chat in our nation’s pubs, especially approaching closing time, is just hot air. It is easy for politicians to talk about how important the pub is and how they want to support them, but just as easy it seems to deny the reality of what is happening to pubs. Up and down the country, in many cases with local citizens and campaigners defeated in brave attempts to save them, often supported by local councillors, pubs are closing down.

What makes this a national scandal, is that many of these pubs are clearly viable, and many cases actually profitable when closed. Pubs that are actively, positively contributing to the local economy, employing people and paying rates and taxes. The loss of a pub is the end of a business that contributes proportionately more to the local economy than supermarkets, flats or town houses do - a pub employs people, notably young people and that serves the local community in a way no other business does or can.

These pubs are being closed on the basis of a lie, a lie peddled by aggressive developers looking to cram flats or town houses where pubs once stood, by supermarkets who use absurd permitted development rights to impose stores on communities without any consultation, and by pub owning companies when it suits them to cash in and sell off pubs with no consideration for the local community. The lie that these pubs are unremarkable, unviable, and have little historic value. The lie accepted by too many Ministers and council planning departments and plans panels. The lie that is destroying history and heritage and undermining community spirit and cohesion.

The Summercross in my own constituency, the only pub of that name in the country, was given planning permission to be a care home despite Leeds City Council having figures proving the pub was trading profitably. The 15th century Chequer Inn in Ash, Kent, was the last proper pub in the village. It was churned by Punch and sold for a song (£188K) to a developer who wanted to turn it into a private house and currently stands empty. We are losing our history and our heritage and part of who we are as a nation.

This asset stripping of our national heritage is actually supported by the flawed planning system, and by the Department for Communities and Local Government pretending it isn’t happening. Through doing nothing they are complicit in the loss of each and every valued, profitable pub against the wishes of a let-down community.

Communities fighting to stop their pub being turned into a supermarket find they don’t even have the right to object to the Council. Constituents approaching their councillors and MP are incredulous when told the planning system allows supermarkets to close and convert their pub. Often there is the ridiculous situation where a supermarket chain rips out a pub, replace it with a small ‘express’ supermarket  without needing planning permission - yet then have to apply for planning permission for some signage! The planning system is simply bizarre on pubs – there is carte blanche to turn pubs in a supermarket whether people want one or not, you can't then turn a shop back into a pub, without planning permission! The planning system, and therefore the Government, then values theatres, launderettes and nightclubs more than pubs. Hardly the position of a “pro-pub Government”.

Where planning permission is required, indebted pub companies collude with developers, claiming the pub “is “unviable” and weak planning authorities rubber stamp decisions that are obviously cynical attempts to cash it with a windfall for the pubco to placate shareholders and a boost for developer profits. This is particularly serious in London and the South East, where with the value of pubs and their carparks and gardens being so much higher as potential development sites.

The reason behind so much of the loss of Britain’s pub heritage is of the catastrophic leased tied pubco model which has led to their mass asset stripping. Whilst the original pubco bosses who speculated and borrowed against artificial values have long since walked away with their personal fortunes, the amount of debt left from this scam is leading to sale and closures of pubs up and down the country as pubcos do deals with supermarkets and developers. As well as pulling the wool over the eyes of councils when it comes to seeking permission, they also claim that they have no choice, as their first duty is to their shareholders. We have the absurd, awful reality that the interests of those who invested in what was essentially a scam, based on inflated property prices and the protection racket of pubco beer pricing, are now being put ahead of the interests of local communities, of hardworking publicans, and of that local economy.   

So why does the Government, a Government that claims to support both business and localism, continue to refuse to reform the planning system? At the heart of this blind eye is blind ideology, the belief amongst the more out of touch Tory Ministers that what is needed in more and more “deregulation” in the planning system. But this takes away the right of local residents to influence change in their area, but it gives a green light to greedy predators targeting pubs.

Of course, DCLG will claim they are pro-pub due to the ‘Asset of Community Value’ scheme and say that there are more pubs listed as ACVs than anything else. Yet whilst this limited measure can be some help in at least delaying developers or supermarkets closing a pub, it is doing virtually nothing to stem this dangerous attack on our pub heritage.  

ACVs can and have been overruled or even ignored, with ACV pubs that were still shut, converted and demolished and others that sit rotting with this status on, with the owners cynically that a derelict pub is no asset to any community.

The solution is actually a surprisingly simple one– replace the ACV status with a more meaningful Pubs of Community value status – which ensures no listed pub allowed to be given change of use of demolished unless it has been publicly marketed for 6 months at the market value as a pub (not as a development opportunity). If no local entrepreneur, microbrewery, pub company or community group wants to buy and take on the pub, then it can and should be granted permission to close and be something else. For only when this has been tested, can we say it is an unwanted, unviable pub.

Alternatively, the Government could make pubs ‘sui generis’, giving pubs unique status in the planning system meaning planning permission is required for any chase of use for the pub.

So Ministers must stop hiding behind the very limited Asset of Community Value scheme, must stop accepting or worse still peddling the lie that it is only 'unviable' pubs that are being closed and they must stop passing the buck. They - and only they - can take simple, essential measures to give pubs protection against the deliberate targeting and closure of viable, profitable, valued pubs. If they don’t, then their claims to be pro-pub will be just more pub talk, more hot air.

It is simply appalling the way vested corporate interests are colluding and conspiring to deliberately close profitable pubs and rob communities of them for that is exactly what is happening today as Ministers turn the other way.   

It is also perhaps that a Government that likes to claim to be patriotic is looking the other way as our pub heritage is lost and unprincipled developers, pubcos and supermarkets cash in.

It was, perhaps ironically, a Frenchman who wrote the great lines about the threats faced our pubs just over 100 years ago. In This and That (1912) he wrote those famous words:  

"From the towns all Inns have been driven: from the villages most.... Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”.

For England, we could of course add the other ‘home nations’ and with so many village pubs having gone, it is now urban and suburban pubs that are closing in greatest number (often because they offer the easiest development opportunity or the chance to impose a supermarket on a community). 

Hilaire Belloc was also a Liberal MP, perhaps he too raised this in Parliament, but he could scarcely have imagined and would have been appalled at the way vested corporate interests are colluding and conspiring to deliberately close profitable pubs and rob communities of them. So it is also somewhat ironic that a Government that likes to claim to be patriotic is standing by as Britain’s pub heritage is lost as unprincipled developers, pubcos and supermarkets cash in.

Unless they act, it is not just pubs that the Government is letting down, it is our nation, so Ministers must indeed change their hearts on planning reform before we lose any more of it.

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